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Top-notch cast captures August Wilson’s rhythms in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’

Felicia P. Fields stars in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Writers Theater. | Michael Brosilow

Felicia P. Fields stars in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Writers Theater. | Michael Brosilow

Chicago actress Felicia Fields, who received a Tony nomination for her performance on Broadway in “The Color Purple,” delivers again as the title character in the Writers Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

As the historical blues singer, arriving at a Chicago recording studio in 1927 to make a record, Fields delivers the vocal quality — we do get to hear the title song, although this is not a musical — and the oversized personality, but most importantly she conveys the sense of a character comfortable with who she is and where she fits. When she moves, she saunters at her own, slow pace. And, in an amusing detail, costume designer Myrna Colley-Lee has pinned an art deco tail on the back of Ma’s red and pink dress; when she moves it reminded me of a slow-moving metronome.

‘MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM’
★★★1⁄2
When: Through March 17
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe
Tickets: $35 – $80
Info: writerstheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission

It’s important to know, however, that Ma Rainey is not — repeat that, not — the main character of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” She doesn’t enter until late in the first act, and although her power (and Fields’ portrayal) draws all attention to her whenever she’s onstage, Wilson was just as interested, if not moreso, in the more mundane lives of her band, and in particular in Levee (Kelvin Roston Jr.), a young trumpet player and composer with big aspirations and a personality just as gigantic as Ma’s.

In this duo of lead figures, we can see many of the qualities of both style and theme that made August Wilson such a great playwright. In “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Wilson didn’t just write about the music industry or musicians. He wrote musically.

Ma Rainey is the old-time blues, slow and soulful and controlled.

Levee is the upstart jazz. He’d rather improvise than rehearse, wants everyone to pick up the pace, and even in his dialogue with bandmates, he bursts with chaotic energy and rebelliousness.

David Alan Anderson (from left), Kelvin Roston Jr., A.C. Smith and Alfred H. Wilson in a scene from "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Writers Theater. | Michael Brosilow

David Alan Anderson (from left), Kelvin Roston Jr., A.C. Smith and Alfred H. Wilson in a scene from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Writers Theater. | Michael Brosilow

Ma Rainey is the successful black entertainer, wealthy enough and with a sufficient loyal fan base that she knows the ever-annoyed white producer Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox) and her impatiently patient manager Irvin (Peter Moore) need her far more than she needs them. She demands they treat her with respect, but also knows they only really respect the fact that she can earn them money.

Levee is the young, ambitious artist, desperate for a break, willing to cultivate favor with those with power and money, but very sensitive to accusations that he is being subservient to, or afraid of, “the white man.”

Controlled and naturalistic on the one hand, but primed to burst out with potentially dangerous, intense emotion — that’s a pretty good description of Wilson’s work overall.

This early play, written in 1982 and the first of Wilson’s works to reach Broadway, tilts significantly toward American realism than some of his later, more stylized plays such as “Gem of the Ocean,” but Wilson’s poetic voice is fully present. The dialogue among the bandmates is superb, and director Ron OJ Parson — who directed Wilson’s “Radio Golf” at the Court Theatre last year — has cast this work with outstanding actors.

In addition to the terrific Roston Jr. as Levee, there’s Alfred H. Wilson bringing dignified loyalty to the band’s leader Cutler, A.C. Smith making every word count as the less loquacious of the lot Slow Drag, and David Alan Anderson investing the intellectual Toledo with the right mix of well-read confidence and overcertainty.

Set designer Todd Rosenthal visualizes the power hierarchy in a multi-tiered set, with the producing booth up top, the main floor as where Ma dominates, and a lower level for the band room. This layout slows down some of the transitions, but it is also spot-on, giving the play an “Upstairs/Downstairs” dynamic, and making it clear that Wilson was always more interested in the latter, in the lives of the ordinary men and women who toil away, trying to find dignified lives amidst historical and everyday injustices that may be large and systemic, but can also be petty and personal.

Although frequently comic, the play does lead up to an explosive ending, those historical forces and personal sleights coming together to the point of ignition. But the last scene doesn’t quite work here. Both the climax and its immediate aftermath feel over-abrupt. It doesn’t spoil what is overall a very solid production, but it does lessen its lingering power.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.